Language Workbench | WTR 33

Language Workbench | WTR 33

We met Andi at LinuxFest Northwest but had no idea how awesome her part in the community is! She came to linux through taking notes & caught on to how great it can be! Her & her husband have a language workbench you can check out!

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ANGELA: This is Women’s Tech Radio.
PAIGE: A show on the Jupiter Broadcasting Network, interviewing interesting women in technology. Exploring their roles and how they’re successful in technology careers. I’m Paige.
ANGELA: And I’m Angela.
PAIGE: So Angela, today we interview Andi Douglas. She is a cofounder of the Language of Languages company. They are working on a language workbench. If you don’t know what that is, don’t worry about. We will dive into it during the show.
ANGELA: It’s actually a really cool idea.
PAIGE: Yeah.
ANGELA: Stay tuned. But first, I want to tell you about DigitalOcean is a simple cloud hosting provider dedicated to offering the most intuitive and easy way to spin up a cloud server. If you go to and spin up a server, please be sure to use our promo code heywtr to support the show and get yourself a $10.00 credit. They have data center locations in New York, San Francisco, Singapore, Amsterdam, and London. Their interface has a simple intuitive control panel which power users can replicate on a larger scale with the company’s straight forward API. Be sure to use promo code heywtr for your DigitalOcean.
PAIGE: Yes. Sign up and you get your disgustingly fast solid state drive VPS. And we got started with Andi today by asking her what she’s up to these days in technology.
ANDI: I’m working with Language of Languages. It’s a language workbench for reinventing computer programing to revolutionize how we learn, understand and create in computing languages. And the whole idea is that when you work in the main specific languages you have, I think ten times, no, yeah, 10 times the productivity of when you work in a more general purpose language. But the main problem with that is there’s a great cost to creating a compiler and the libraries and all that kind of thing so that you can actually use them effectively. And this creates a shortcut so that you can automate your translation from one computer language to another, or you can develop your own domain specific language. I only do a little bit of programing. I’m actually more of the project manager. But this was a fascinating project because I’ve been going to conferences with my husband. My background is I’m an RN, but about 10 years ago I started going to computing conferences with my husband and started learning about computing and I was just fascinated and fascinated by the people. I got to meet Alan Kay and he’s all about the revolution in computer hasn’t happened yet. He really wants to get to that concept that Papert showed in Mindstorms that we need to work with computers in order to help ourselves understand thinking about thinking and to change the way we think. And also then in the process that changed the way we compute. And this has been a wonderful project. We had a session at the last Linux Fest. We’ve given talks at a couple universities. I love being at Linux Fest because people are wide open to different ideas there and that was a great experience.
PAIGE: Yeah. So we met Andi at Linux Fest Northwest this year where she was awesome and introduced herself. Andi, what was your talk on at Linux Fest this year?
ANDI: Bootstrapping a language workbench.
PAIGE: And for people who don’t know, because I think it’s kind of a more obscure term in the computing family, what is a language workbench. Like, from from the nuts and bolts, but sort of high level.
ANDI: Language workbenches have been around about 10 years and there’s actually a competition in that, but it’s all online. I haven’t seen any actual specific conferences where they do it. But a language workbench, in our case you — ever line of a code — every line of code is an idea that a human being has that they have to communicate both to the computer and to other people. And in order to translate to a different language we abstract that out to what’s commonly known as the AST, or in our case we called it the LET, which stands for language element tree. From that level you can then project it out into many different languages by simply copying and pasting the grammar in there and then writing a few rules of how to go from one language to another language and then automate the translation. It’s much less error prone and much faster than trying to do it line by line by human being.
PAIGE: So, essentially, a language workbench means that I can write code in say Ruby, use a language workbench, and have something come out in Java.
ANDI: Right. And this is an open source project on GitHub. It’s really still beginning. It’s in the early ages. We have some people contributing. Most recently, Jamie did a thing where he got a language called C Lite from the book programing languages by Tucker and Newnan. And he translated that. And he was working with another professor and he was able to do that in an afternoon.
ANGELA: So, is the point of it to — well, I don’t know about actually saying the point of it, but is the idea that you don’t necessarily have to learn a second language, you can still use one that you’re very fond of, but be able to be universal enough to use other — or to have it be converted fairly seamlessly to other languages?
ANDI: Yes. ANd also on big projects like building an airplane you’re going to have people working in many different languages or icien my case, my passion is about global warming and most of the computing in that is done is Fortran. A lot of it is very fragile legacy software that can break quite easily.
ANGELA: Right.
ANDI: And I think it’s really important to be able to revolutionize how we do the code so that it’s not constantly become legacy code and easily broken.
PAIGE: That’s really interesting that you bring that up.
ANGELA: Yeah it is.
PAIGE: One of my good friends just finished her PhD at the University of Minnesota in Mathematics and her job was she was remodeling the way that they do global warming predictions and climate change predictions in a way that you could actually model them on a personal computer with like Mathematica. Because they just actually, instead of coming at the perspective from a computer scientist, they came at it from the math side and were able to build much more efficient, much closer models and get the same sort of results with tiny, tiny fractions of the computing power and work.
ANDI: Yeah. And when you think about it, math is simply a domain specific language.
PAIGE: Yeah, exactly. It’s a way to talk to another set of logic in a way that we understand.
ANDI: Yeah.
PAIGE: Yeah. That’s super cool. You called out in your story that you were an RN first?
ANDI: Yes.
PAIGE: How and why did you make the transition into tech?
ANDI: Part of it was that my career was winding down. I’m 63 and eventually that kind of career wears your body out.
ANGELA: Uh, yeah. Yeah, it definitely would.
ANDI: So two years ago I did — I was still working or insurance company helping people with COPD and heart failure manage their diseases over the phone. I had done some telenursing where we had put a computer with a blood pressure cuff and a stethoscope in people’s homes and called them and I would help them take their blood pressure and then listen to their heart and lungs over the phone using the computer.
ANGELA: That’s really cool.
ANDI: Yeah, it was really cool. And when you get into it there’s so many ways of using technology to distance. You can do counseling. Some surgeons will get online with some of the — specialist surgeons will get online with another doctor who’s doing a surgery and they can actually look through the special glasses that they use to see the blood vessels and help them do the surgery, can guide them through it.
ANGELA: That is awesome.
ANDI: Yeah.
PAIGE: Yeah.
ANGELA: So you had — that was the merging of being a nurse and introducing into technology, a little bit.
ANDI: Well, partially. A lot of it was I was going to all these conferences with Jamie and I”m his note taker, because he’s got a learning disability.
ANDI: Smart but he’s got the dyslexia (unintelligible) thing. And so I was in there taking notes and talking to people like, you know, Alan Kay and, I can’t remember all the people. You know, people from SAP and all those places. And hearing about using genetic algorithms to do randomness, to add randomness to debugging programs and the idea that you do need some randomness, a little bit of chaos in your, in your programing world in order to really find the best solutions to problems. Simply using logic won’t get you where you need to go. That was amazing. That was, I had never heard anything like that. So it’s that whole thinking about thinking based on people looking and seeing how we’ve done it and what didn’t work and what did work. It just changes how you see everything in the world when you go through those experiences.
ANGELA: Yeah. I could see that. I — this is completely related, except not. Or completely unrelated, except a little bit. But, you know, the eyes of a construction worker are way different than my eyes. They can look at a wall and be like, I could take that out. I could, you know, or they see concrete and they see, we can just scrap that. And I see, how am I going to work around this concrete. You know, like, it’s really weird to be able to have your mind opened like that and be able to free those-
ANDI: Perceptions.
ANGELA: Perceptions, yeah.
PAIGE: Preconceived notions. Those things. Yeah. And that even ties into the idea of languages. They’ve run these studies where they show people a pallet of colors and they say can you identify differences in these colors? Are these colors the same, are they different? And someone who is a trained artist who has a lot of words to describe things, like they use things like sienna and burnt umber and whatever. They can actually see differences in two colors that a layperson, a non-artist can’t. To me, it would just look like to of the same oranges and to them it might be, this is a sienna and this is burnt umber.
ANDI: Yeah. I think when I was in intensive care — doing nursing in intensive care in my earlier career, you could look at a patient and look at their color and their breathing and even smell certain things that would tell you which way they were going.
ANDI: I mean, you’d still want all the technology, the lines in the arteries and veins and the EKG and all of that, but there are certain ways people look that told you right away, oh gosh I’ve got to start the — I’m expecting a code to happen here.
ANGELA: Right. Advanced directives.
ANDI: So, Alan Kay had a great quote, and I think what he said was change in your viewpoint can change your your IQ by 85 points. Something like that. And he was talking about going from looking at the world through bear eyed to looking at the world through either a microscope or a telescope.
PAIGE: Did either of you see the movie Big Hero 6?
PAIGE: So, it’s a movie about a young, very young boy who is struggling to come up with a robotics idea and his older brother is very — you know, they’re both geniuses and is trying to help him and the younger brother is very stuck. And the older brother literally picks him up and puts him over his shoulder so that he’s upside down and shakes him around, and then he gets the ID. I think that’s-
ANDI: That’s great. Chaos changing your point of view.
PAIGE: And it’s a cute moment, but it is literally true. Change your perspective. So you guys are on GitHub? How do people find you?
ANDI: We’ve got a couple things. We’ve got — the GitHub site you’d put in Jamie Douglas/Languageoflanguages. I guess you can put either / or \ seems to work. And then also we had-
PAIGE: i think you have
ANDI: Yeah, is the other one. And if you go in there, we need to work on that site but you can actually use that that get to the workbench in there. And you can then go to the GitHub site if you want to contribute or want to take at the contributions people are making right now.
PAIGE: And you mentioned earlier that you — although you don’t do a lot of coding that you did do some. Um, what sort of tools did you either use to learn the coding that you’re doing or what, what tools do you use to do it? Kind of what’s in your stack right now?
ANDI: Well, at that point Jamie was really teaching me, because I wanted to learn. And he used that book, uh, with the code book. And he was teaching me using squeak, because that’s a language from Small Talk which was his favorite language at that point. And it’s a very user friend, especially for children. There’s tiles where you fill in certain numbers, but you actually pull the the tiles down and place them in your formulas. Not place them in your code. And I did the thing of drawing the racecar and then having it follow a line around. And then, you know, I had to get it to come back to the line when it’s lost the line and that kind of thing. And then I also learned some HTML and CSS online. Just a little bit so I could get an idea about what people were talking about.
PAIGE: Those graphical programing languages. There’s a couple out there. Squeak is one. Scratch from the MIT Media Lab is another very similar. Great for kids and adults. And I think that that’s something that gets overlooked a lot. Is like, oh that’s for kids. No, no, no. It’s awesome for adults too. We actually don’t learn that differently than children.
ANGELA: Yeah. I actually — I went to and did the Angry Birds. I did an hour of that.
PAIGE: Oh, nice.
ANGELA: Yeah. And it was really interesting and it’s kind of complicating. I haven’t done it with DIllon yet, but I will be soon.
PAIGE: Yeah. He’s right about that age.
ANGELA: Uh-huh.
PAIGE: Uh-huh. Very cool.
ANDI: I also took my granddaughter to a coding class over at Western where they were making computer games.
ANGELA: Right. Probably with Andrea.
ANDI: And that was kind of interesting. Actually, it was the person before Andrea. I think Andrea is a better teacher. That one, it was kind of a confusing class because there was all these highly advanced little boys in there who had their own LEGO Mindstorm robots at home.
ANGELA: Oh yeah.
ANDI: And we were true beginners in terms of any kind of robotics. So I think that they’ve worked on that to make it a lot better so that people of any entry level can get in there and actually get something out of it.
PAIGE: That’s always a challenge I have when teaching — even, most of the teaching I do is just with women because I’m involved with Women Who Code, but trying to find a way to make it interesting to someone who has done this before, but accessible to someone who has never touched code. That’s really cool. And, you know, if we get our little girls Mindstorm Robots, like they will — the boys are only doing it because they have access to it, in part. Like it’s not genetically different.
ANDI: Yeah, when I went to the conferences they said they’ll start off with little toys like the LEGO snap together toys for girls, for the little girls. And then progress to littleBits and then from there go to the bigger ones. And so I got the littleBits and sometimes I can get my granddaughter, the five year old, interested. Sometimes not. She’s very much into dolls, which is where the little girl LEGO toys come in. But I think she’s going to get there.
PAIGE: I do believe in the idea that at least at some level everybody should learn the idea of coding. Because it’s just logic and logic is useful throughout everything in life.
ANDI: That’s theme of the book Mindstorms is that Papert felt — and he’s work with (unintelligible), he felt that working with the computers changed how children thought about thinking and brought them up to a much higher level, to levels that some adults never actually reach. And in terms of being able to step back and think about thinking.
PAIGE: That’s really interesting. I wonder how that compares to like meditation. Where you’re actually thinking about thinking.
ANDI: Again, you know, that’s like allowing chaos to enter your brain so that you want to follow all these logical lines and you keep stopping yourself.
PAIGE: Yeah.
ANDI: And then you get to see all the crazy stuff that will come through when you keep stopping yourself.
PAIGE: Right.
ANGELA: Right. Yeah.
ANDI: It’s a different way of knowing things.
PAIGE: That’s an excellent way to put that. A different way of knowing things. I like that. Well, Andi, this has been an absolute treat. Thank you so much for joining us and sharing your journey, and we will definitely keep an eye on Language of Languages. And we’ll have all those links for you in the show notes. And thanks so much.
ANGELA: Thank you for listening to this episode of Women’s Tech Radio. Remember, you can go to to check out the show notes which includes a full transription of this episode.
PAIGE: You can also find us on iTunes or the RSS feed for the podcast is linked on our website. If you’d like to get in touch, please use the contact form on the website. Drop down will have a selection for Women’s Tech Radio. Or you can email us directly at If you have any feedback or you’d like to recommend a guest for the show, we’d love to interview more exciting women. And also check us out on Twitter @heywtr. Thanks for listening.

Transcribed by Carrie Cotter |

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